Interview: ‘Wheelman’ writer/director Jeremy Rush

With Netflix’s Wheelman, writer/director Jeremy Rush set out to make something different.

Working with a simple setup (getaway driver gets sabotaged, spends entire night figuring out who wronged him), a first rate leading man in Frank Grillo and dynamite producer (Joe Carnahan, launching War Party with Grillo), Rush tricked out the action thriller genre entry like a fast car lover would with an old muscle car, replacing an old engine with sophistication instead of the ordinary expectation.

The result was an 82 minute thrill ride, punctuated by pulpy excitement and an exhilarating energy; an experience that triggered old school cinema which relied on its own idea of cool instead of recycling someone else’s model.

I spoke with Rush before the holiday season about the process of thinking up, creating, and executing the critically acclaimed delight that became Wheelman as well as the current climate of film and his early influences. As usual, a standard interview quickly became a conversation between a pair of film addicts.

Buffa: Netflix is taking over, and this film (Wheelman) felt like the kind of film that the writer/director got to make the film he wanted to. Did Netflix give you the freedom that was needed?

Jeremy Rush: You hit the nail on the head. I partnered up with Joe Carnahan and Frank Grillo. It was a very short conversation about whether to go with Netflix or not. A big part of that was the creative freedom. I’ve been telling people that a film like this-with a first time director and the visual approach we wanted to take-doesn’t get made without Netflix. 

Buffa: This is why people are going to them. New films pop up every week. All these actors are doing this films with Netflix. Is there a lot of oversight from Netflix or do they let you go?

Rush: I can’t speak for other films, because this is my first film-but I have worked as a crew member on other films. I do know that the bigger budget and the bigger the risk, there will be more oversight. I do know Netflix has two “ranges”, a one under $20 million and one over $20 million. We were well below $20 million! With a lower budget, you get to try stuff that is a little riskier, but you’ve hedged your bets by not spending a lot of money on it. Netflix more or less said, “go make your movie”. They had a few technical requirements about how they deliver content, but that was it. It wasn’t until we came back to them with the second go-round with the edit of the film that they had some notes on how to make the film better. For the most part, they let us run.

Buffa: Now, anyone who watches this film can clearly see your love for cars. The shots in the film where Grillo is working the shift or moving his foot off the pedal are things we haven’t seen before. The attention to detail. What about cars appeals to you so much, because it’s the DNA of this flick?

Rush: I’m glad you were able to put your finger on that. It was really important to me as a filmmaker. I mean, every time you pick a project to do, there’s a handful of the meat on the bone, something you want to sink your teeth into. The technical aspects of driving is something I’m interested in at an amateur level. They afforded us two things with this film. First is what you just mentioned, a visual language of those insert shots and cutting them into the film.

That’s what you want to do with a movie. If I’m going to ask you to spend 82 movies watching a film, I want to earn those 82 minutes. We wanted to make something collectively fresh, something new. The second more technical function of those shots of the shifting and the seats is that when you have a fixed interior, the camera never leaves the car, which means we are on Frank for 95 percent of the film. You need shots to cut away to in order to edit the film together. If not, you would dilute his performance on screen. So you need other relevant images and characters to cut to in order to preserve the pacing and his performance. 

I love driving. I’ve been driving a manual transmission for 20 years. It’s a primal satisfaction nailing a good heel to a downshift, slotting it from third to second. You leave it in the rear-view. 

Buffa: There’s something that is so liberating about it. I haven’t mastered the manual transmission, but I’ve been in a car where someone punches and there’s nothing like it.

Rush: For the record, I don’t think you master it. It’s like boxing or something that is endless. We wanted to make it part of the atmosphere. The credibility of the driving adds to the credibility of the performance. Every decision is in support of that.

Buffa: Anyone who knows me, I’m a Grillo addict. I can watch him in anything. No one commands the screen like him. Everything feels real. Is that what drew you to him for this movie?

Rush: You hit the nail on the head. He has an authenticity about him that only a handful of actors have, at least those who are American. We wanted this to be set in the United States, so having a guy who has that gravity and authenticity is hard to find. That kind of casting for a lead actor informs a lot of the other decisions. The universe we build around Frank is different than one that would be for another actor. It informs the casting and wardrobe, even down to the lighting, The way you light Frank’s face is different than if you would light another actor’s face.

They say the two most important decisions you make as a director is the material you choose to make and the cast you choose to populate that material with. He was the right age. I was talking to Joe about casting, and he was like, “what do you think about Frank Grillo?” I said, “you know what I think about Frank Grillo.” So he sent him the script, with no promises, to see what he thought. 24 hours later, we were talking about making the movie. He loved the script, we met at a bar, and hit it off. He’s a fighter. It wasn’t written for Frank, but if you read the script, one could make an argument it’s hard to see anyone else but Frank in the role. 

Buffa: I interviewed a director recently who talked about the different styles of directing. With Clint Eastwood, he wants you to see the truth, while Steven Spielberg wants you to feel something. As a director, what is your goal with the audience? Do you want them to see the truth, feel something, or make them a really good driver?

Rush: All of the above. When it comes to Wheelman, the secret sauce is that it’s a father/daughter art movie wrapped inside a thriller. You want to get some kind of response. You go to see a movie in order to be manipulated in assigned ways. Leave the theater with an experience outside your everyday reality. There are films that are really tough, like ripped from the headlines. That’s not what we were going for. This is an escapist film. Sometimes you want to watch a film that makes you feel good. 

There’s a great quote from a Spanish chef, Fran Andrea, who created the molecular gastronomy movement that turns food into a new artform. He says you have to entertain them first and leave them with a message second. That’s our philosophy. Make a fun, exciting movie and give it some heart. The film doesn’t work without the father/daughter element.

Buffa: That’s the hitch of the film. Frank’s character isn’t perfect, but he will protect his family. You can instantly connect to.

Rush: I think so. Films like Taken have used that before. They made it more like a “damsel in distress”, and that’s not what we wanted to do. So we put her in the car with him, which kind of flipped that trope on its head.

Buffa: Wheelman looks familiar, but it hasn’t been done this way.

Rush: We’ve seen this 100 times, but we have not seen it this way. That’s the obligation of the filmmaker. Earn those 90 minutes with a fresh perspective. Give it the special sauce. Tell a story that we have seen before, but one that gives us access to the characters that we haven’t seen before. 

Buffa: When did you know you wanted to make films?

Rush: That’s a good question. It’s a cumulative sequence of events. I studied literature in college, so I was always into storytelling. Then I was in Japan, training with martial arts. I came home and worked odd jobs, so I knew I had to figure out what I wanted to do. I sat down with those long legal pads and drew a line down the middle. On one side, I made a list of the things I liked to do, and the other side I wrote down things I was good at whether I liked them or not. Filmmaking came out of that. 

Buffa: What were some of your favorite films growing up?

Rush: I was born in 1977, so all the films by Spielberg and George Lucas. And then, filmmakers like William Friedkin and Michael Mann. Predator, Bullitt, Duel, Taxi Driver, and Thief. Typical action and adventure films, and sci-fi. Driving movies that were a reference for Wheelman. More modern films too, like Drive, Nightcrawler, Coen Brothers films like No Country For Old Men, and Locke. Collateral. David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Denis Villenueve. 

Buffa: I know people are likening Wheelman to Locke, but I got a strong sense of Collateral too. Those two guys get in the car, and Frank looking back at them reminded me of Jamie Foxx looking back at Tom Cruise.

Rush: Absolutely. You put two alpha characters in the car, and there will be some butt sniffing that goes on. Tension builds. Definitely an influence and a reference. 

Buffa: I watched a film called Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I left thinking we need more films like that. Movies like Wheelman. It wasn’t based off anything and it wasn’t a superhero film. It was about human beings trying to survive. Do you feel like there is a shortage of those types of films these days?

Rush: That’s a great question. One that our industry is asking in many capacities right now. I think that it’s coming back right now. Original stories that are important and rare right now, but I do think they are coming back. 

Buffa: It isn’t like I walk into a movie needing to be blown away or saturated with something from another world. I want to see something visually dazzling. A lot of times, studios love to make money, and I get it. However, if you can do both, that needs to be the goal.

Rush: For sure. That’s what Christopher Nolan is doing right now, more experimental films that are wrapped in a commercial viability. It’s brilliant. That’s the apex of cinema. I hope we are getting back to that. There’s a place for superhero films, but I’m like you in being drawn to a story with a scope that feels more familiar. Ones with tangible stakes. You know Superman isn’t going to die and Lois Lane isn’t going to die, so it’s more diluted stakes. 

Buffa: With films these days, I think you have to know what the expectations are going in. Is that correct? Are there people out there who want to slam a movie for no reason?

Rush: There is definitely a pervasive culture where people try to find the faults in everything, which is the justification for forming an opinion and broadcasting it. I don’t know that I agree with that, especially when it comes to a really subjective experience like watching a movie. How can one person tell another person that a movie they like stinks. However, I’m not sure I can really answer that question. Since I started making movies, I watch films with a more technical eye, looking for different things. I’m constantly seeing what worked and what didn’t. I watch them differently today.

Buffa: What is it like right after your film opens? Is it a proud feeling or more nervous? What were you feeling right after Wheelman went live on Netflix?

Rush: Man, that’s a really great question. That’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. This is my first film. It was a very fast process. We shot the film in September of last year, and it came out just over a year later. It was really intense process. I don’t know if I had enough time to process it. I feel pretty strongly that what people think of the movie is none of my business. The night it came out, my wife and I had dinner, and we didn’t even talk about it. It was really good to just get out. Wheelman is very satisfying. People contacting me about how much they loved the film is so satisfying. People within the industry telling me how good it is. When people you looked up to like the film, that means a lot. The most satisfying thing are the family members and friends who have been along for the journey, people who have known or supported it for years, watch it and like it. 

Buffa: One last question. Let’s dive into fun territory. Which ones of these would you choose? Over my dead body: drive a Prius, grow a mustache, or eat tofu?

Rush: You gotta know it’s the Prius. You could have done, “remove a limb or drive a Prius”, and the answer would be the same. 

Buffa: Which one person would you punch in the face?

Rush: That’s a tough one. I’ve signed various non-disclosure agreements, so I can’t tell you who that person is or those people would be, but let’s just say there are many snakes in the grass of Hollywood. People I would love two minutes of consensual time with. 

Buffa: Fair enough. I hope we get a Wheelman 2, one where he becomes an Uber driver, so I could grab a role. 

Rush: Sure, I’ll have my people call your people. 

Here’s the thing, ladies and gents: Hollywood needs more filmmakers like Jeremy Rush. Renegades who want to create something authentic that doesn’t leave the mind so easily. Wheelman did enough things differently with its substance that the style simply worked you over until the end just left you wanting more.

Rush is a filmmaker to keep an eye on, savor, and appreciate. Show some self-respect, reserve 90 minutes (82 for the film, 8 to dry off), and watch Wheelman on Netflix.

It’s got Frank Grillo, fast cars, a need to impose its will, and an energy that slows down just enough to reveal a heart.

Then again, this is just the beginning for Rush, Hollywood, and his audience. There’s far more to come. In the meantime, watch Wheelman, like right now.

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